Idaho's congressional delegation declared its intent last fall to take up the reins of the Upper Lochsa Land Exchange, a 40,000-acre land swap between the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon-based Western Pacific Timber. In a September letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, Rep. Raul Labrador and Sens. James Risch and Mike Crapo wrote that the current administrative approach is unlikely to succeed.
"Some of the concerns already raised by stakeholders cannot be addressed without additional legislative authority," the letter concluded.
WPT general counsel Andy Hawes says the lawmakers' decision was a positive development for the company, which purchased the checkerboarded lands near Lolo Pass from Plum Creek Timber in 2006 with the intent of trading them to the Forest Service. He adds that the company is now talking to stakeholders including the Nez Perce Tribe, recreation groups, livestock owners and outfitters with the goal of passing along comments and concerns to the delegation. Hawes sees this as an opportunity to work with those groups and hopefully "resolve the issues that could not be resolved in the administrative process."
But the possibility of a bill addressing the controversial exchange has reinvigorated concerns among environmentalists. Gary Macfarlane with Friends of the Clearwater says he conveyed a strong message to the lawmakers that a legislative solution, however unlikely it is to pass Congress, would be a far worse direction to take.
"A legislative approach is not subject to citizen review," Macfarlane says. "A legislative approach doesn't have to be in the public interest. There are many examples of legislative exchanges and/or land giveaways, and in almost every single instance, the public interest was not met."
The September letter contained a list of seven criteria for a legislative approach, calling for "local working sessions with stakeholder groups" and protections for "historic recreation and other public uses of federal lands." But Macfarlane hasn't heard much since, and the ensuing silence has him questioning who qualifies as a stakeholder in the eyes of officials.
The letter also stated that legislation "must provide a net economic benefit to the citizens of Idaho County." That comes as a win for the Idaho County Commission, which pushed hard for an acre-for-acre tradesomething the Forest Service can't legally do in an administrative exchangeout of fear that any loss in private land resulting from the exchange would negatively impact property tax revenues.
Macfarlane says he fully supports transferring the WPT lands to the public. But the only appropriate approach he sees for securing those acres is an outright purchase similar to the Montana Legacy Project.
"If the delegation wants to do the right thing," Macfarlane says, "they would use the legislative process to look at some way to purchase the Upper Lochsa."